Mountain Views News, Combined Edition Saturday, March 16, 2024

MVNews this week:  Page 17




The Vine

Sierra Madre’s 130-Year Old Wistaria* Vine By Phyllis Chapman


Phyllis Chapman, Sierra Madre's Historian and 
foremost authority on all things 'Wistaria', passed away 
in 2020. 

 The Vine is housed on private property and the 
owners have graciously allowed the public to view 
this historic landmark. The Sierra Madre Chamber 
of Commerce, The City and Residents of Sierra Madre 
greatly appreciate the genorosity of the homeowners for 
allowing this event to take place every year. Now, on to 
Mrs. Chapman's Vine History:

 In 1894, William and Alice Brugman 
purchased a home on what was then called 
Piedmont, which is now called W. Carter Ave. 
The house had been built one year before by 
builder Amos Trussell for his daughter Winona 
and son-in-law Edward B. Jones when they 
married. It was the first wedding celebrated in 
early Sierra Madre.

 The Trussells and the Jones had a change of 
plans, sold to the Brugmans and moved away. 
To enhance her new home, Alice Brugman and 
her neighbor Mrs. W. B. Crisp, drove by horse 
and buggy to the R. H. Wilson Pioneer Nursery 
in Monrovia and for $.75 purchased a gallon 
can of wistaria. It was the Chinese Wistaria 
variety (Wisteria sinensis). She planted it in 
a corner of her front porch remarking to her 
neighbor: “They say Wistaria grows fast.” And 
grow it did.

 Mr. Brugman, a mining engineer, was in 
Mexico when the vine was planted. He died 
in 1899 and Mrs. Brugman sold the home 
in 1906. The property changed hands until 
it was purchased in 1913 by Henry T. and 
Estelle Fennel. Mr. Fennel, who was a bit of 
a horticulturist, loved the vine, and gave it 
devoted care, even building support trellises.

 Although the Wistaria is a vigorous grower, 
the added support of the trellises may have 
contributed to this vine’s phenomenal growth. 
The arbors prevented the end tendrils from 
hanging down and causing the tender terminal 
buds to die from the added weight. Wistaria 
requires good drainage, certainly provided by 
this hilly, terraced location. There may also be 
an underground spring providing water to the 
tap root. 

 The vine eventually destroyed the original 
home, growing into the walls and fireplace and 
causing the roof to collapse. Mr. Fennel built 
a new home 200 feet to the north (the present 
upper home) and trained the vine to grow up to, 
but not covering the new residence. A portion 
of the foundation of that original home was 
saved to continue to provide support for the 
vine as its branches extended such a distance.

 When the vine was in bloom, the Fennels 
would invite friends to come and enjoy the 
blossoming plant. Visitors also came from 
Pasadena’s main hotels: The Green, The 

Huntington, and The Raymond. In 1918, the 
Fennels opened the vine to the Sierra Madre 
Chapter of the American Red Cross, which 
sponsored a very successful fundraiser to help 
the war effort. 12,000 people attended the 
event. This was the beginning of many Wistaria 
festivals that took place year after year. Sierra 
Madre became known as the Wistaria City. 
Many local organizations, including the Board 
of Trade (now the Chamber of Commerce), the 
Woman’s Club, the Masons and Eastern Star, 
the Sierra Madre Volunteer Fire Dept., etc. 
were involved.

 Many homemade items, fancy work, ceramics, 
artwork, gift books, and Wistaria fragranced 
perfume, hand lotion and bath salts were sold 
at booths under the vine. Luncheons and teas 
were served, often with young Japanese women 
wearing their kimonos.

 The hard work and money earned at the vine 
by the Woman’s Club paid off the mortgage of 
their first clubhouse. One year the Fire Dept. 
parked 30,000 cars on the parking lot that 
existed in Floral Canyon. (This is now Sierra 
Meadow Dr.). Easter sunrise services were 
among vine activities. People came from all 
over the world and extra street cars were added 
to handle the crowds. Among the famous were 
Fritz Kreisler, Janet Leigh, Mary Pickford, and 
Norman Rockwell. These two helped select the 
festival’s Wistaria Queen. Packard Automobile 
Co. used the vine as a backdrop to advertise its 

On December 5, 1936, Carrie Ida Lawless 
purchases the vine property (Continued on B2)

from Mrs. Fennel, who was now a widow, for 
$17,000.00. December 5th was Mrs. Lawless’ 
birthday, and according to one account, she 
was making a present to herself of the world’s 
largest bouquet. Also a widow, her husband 

William J (Bill) Lawless was mayor of Sierra 
Madre during 1928-29. She, herself, was a 
successful businesswoman having founded 
the Weaver Jackson Beauty Co. in Los Angeles 
and was active in the community, serving as 
president of the Woman’s Club and the Garden 

 Mrs. Lawless spent a small fortune (around 
$100,000) enhancing the grounds of her new 
property and caring for the vine. When the 
festivals were held they often lasted for the 
weeks the vine was in bloom, not just for one 
day. Mrs. Lawless, a patron of the arts, also 
sponsored vine activities all year long.

 She hosted art exhibits, musicales, and poetry 
readings. Nearby residents objected to the 
constant activity and took their complaints to 
the City Council. Nothing was done as Mrs. 
Lawless presented the argument that the vine 
existed before these neighbors purchased their 

 In recognition for her contributions to the 
community, the Garden Club planted another 
Wistaria in the terraced garden on the west side 
of what is today the Solt’s garden. It blooms a 
bit later than the original vine and the plaque 
commemorating the occasion is gone.

 When Mrs. Lawless died in 1942, she provided 
for the vine by leaving a legacy to her nephew 
and heir, Bruce McGill, to continue care of 
the property with a committee headed by the 
Garden Club President. In 1944, the property 
was purchased by Richard and Marian Thayer. 
Marian is the daughter of M. Penn Phillips, a 
well-known developer of desert property. 
In 1944 the vine was overgrown and in poor 
condition. Richard Thayer planned to chop it 
up and get rid of it. A protest was raised and 
an association was formed to protect the vine, 
with money provided to pay property taxes 
and provide year-round care for the vine.

 In 1961, after Richard Thayer died, the lot was 
split. Marian married builder Ronald Cook 
who developed the west side of the property 
with homes and built the present Solt home for 
he and Marian in1962. The upper home was 
sold to Joseph and Marie Feeney who raised 
eight children there. In 1972, Ron and Marian 
sold the lower home to Bob and Nell Solt. In 
the late 1990s, Joe Feeney died and Maria sold 
the property. It was purchased in 2003 by the 
present owners, Dan and Dana Dorrance.

 By the 1970’s Vine Festival activity had 
about ended. It started up again in the late 
70’s when sponsored for one day each year by 
the Chamber of Commerce. The Sierra Madre 
Beautification Committee was the yearly 
sponsor in the 1980’s. Approximately 500-
600 people attended the festival each year. 
In the spring of 1989, Huell Howser came to 
film the vine for his program Videolog, which 
aired on KCET. The next year, approximately 
6,000 people came to view the vine. The 
festival organizers were unprepared for such 
a turnout; lines stretched for two blocks. 
Howser returned in 1992 to film again for his 
California Gold program. Sierra Madre and 
the Chamber of Commerce quickly organized 
and combined the annual Vine viewing with a 
downtown street fair. A shuttle bus is provided, 
and people procure tickets to see the vine at a 
pre-scheduled time.

The Guinness Book of World Records has 
named the Vine the World’s largest flowering 
plant. It is estimated that at the height of bloom 
it has 1.5 million blossoms with 40 blossoms 
per sq. ft., weighs 250 tons and has branches 
that extend 500 feet. Wistaria is a member of 
the pea family though its seeds resemble a flat 
bean. Seed pods burst open in the summer. 
The plant is deciduous, losing its leaves in 
the winter. Wistaria seeds were brought from 
China by Marco Polo in the 13th century.

 Today, the vine covers approximately one 
acre. Over the years, it has shown distress and 
seemed to be dying. Experts have been brought 
in from Cal Tech, Occidental, and Cal Poly 
Pomona. Correct pruning, treatments with 
hormones, and vitamin B have helped the vine 
to recover and to flourish. To help maintain 
the Vine’s health, records of vine growth and 
care are now kept on a computer log. The Vine 
seems to produce its greatest flowering after a 
cold winter followed by a sudden hot spell.

 What is the correct spelling for wisteria—
wisteria or wistaria? In the Sunset Western 
Garden Book it is spelled wisteria. Sierra Madre 
has always spelled it wistaria. According to L. 
A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden 
senior biologist Jim Bauml and Librarian Joan 
De Fato, the plant was named to honor Caspar 
Wistar (1761-1818), an American physician 
and teacher, who taught at the University of 
Pennsylvania. Among his accomplishments, 
he wrote the first text-book on anatomy. When 
the name of the genus Wisteria was put into the 
books, it was incorrectly spelled, says De Fato. 
So, one could say that all along, Sierra Madre 
has correctly spelled Wistaria!